Darren Riley had never had issues breathing. He was active – he played basketball in college – and never once needed an inhaler.
But then three years ago, he moved to south Detroit. In his late 20s, he developed symptoms of asthma and was diagnosed.
He thought about his father, who was also diagnosed at a late age. But his father always had symptoms growing up in the Baisley Queens Projects in New York City, an area that’s now known to be smog-ridden, Riley said.
Riley connected the dots. The poor air quality was contributing to both of their asthma. He began researching and understanding the disparities: Many low-income, often diverse neighborhoods have poorer air quality than affluent, mainly white neighborhoods.
“You see just great disparities around healthcare data around asthma and hospitalization for adolescents,” Riley said. “You can’t ignore the air quality.”
Air quality had always been close to his heart. He used to teach coding to kids with JOURNi Detroit, and one example he often brought up was the Arduino Air Quality Monitoring systems. He wanted to show the kids that they could code solutions to problems that were near to their heart.
“I’m very interested in how to use technology to really solve underserved or underrepresented problems,” he said.
Eventually he took his own advice. With a co-founder, James Meeks, the founder and managing partner of Rapids Venture in Grand Rapids and a serial entrepreneur, Riley launched JustAir last year. The aim is to more closely monitor the air quality of their nearby neighborhoods in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The goal is to close the air pollution gap and corresponding health disparities.
It’s About the Volume of Monitors
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does large-scale tracking, Riley said. But it’s insufficient. “Studies have shown, and even our data has proven that that data is not sufficient enough to really understand and capture what’s really going on in a city environment,” he said. The key issue is that there aren’t enough sensors.
For instance, a JustAir sensor just three miles from an EPA monitor recorded much different air quality. That means dozens or even hundreds of monitors may be necessary to accurately track the quality in a city. The EPA announced last week it will expand its monitoring of air pollution across the country, according to ProPublica. The announcement came after the news organization published an investigation on some of the worst polluted areas in the country.
JustAir deploys its sensors – a standard technology that complies with EPA guidelines – through partnerships with organizations such as with Downtown Grand Rapids Inc.. JustAir also creates data sets for communities and individuals to understand the disparities more.
“I think it’s so important to make sure that you have collaboration with the community before you put (the sensors) on around you,” he said. “The value of the hardware, the value of that data is only as strong as the awareness of those who live with it.”
To date they’ve raised about $75,000 from Chicago accelerator MHub, which allowed Riley to work on the business full time, he said.In less than a year, the company has brought in about $68,000 in revenue.
Many groups and companies are working on air quality, and many claim to be focused on the health disparities. Riley said he has observed that profit motivations or the need to have an influence on policy sometime supercede the stated goal to help the community.
Still, the work is all important, he said. “Everyone in this space, they’re doing great work, and I think they’re all attacking the problem,” he said.”There’s different approaches and I think we all need these approaches.”
Riley hopes to expand his monitoring programs to nearby Detroit and Chicago. Currently, he’s working with the University of Michigan to track truck traffic to understand better how much trucking is contributing to the air quality in the community.
Making an Impact Starts With Passion. Riley said he didn’t consider making a business out of his interest in air quality for years. He’s always been interested, especially when it began to affect him personally. Now, it’s what drives him.
Tech Must be Intertwined with Community. Hardware is just hardware without human value. “Any problem you’re solving, whether it’s climate change, creating a dating app, or creating some software for enterprises, at the end of the day, there’s a human on the other side of that computer,” he said.
This story has been updated to reflect that Riley taught kids how to code at JOURNi Detroit and that he launched the JustAir at the start of 2021.